Egypt's Overcrowded Christian Churches Are A Fire Risk — Building New Ones Is Risky Too
After a fire at a church in August killed 42 people, Egypt's Christians are worried about the fate of their places of worship, which lack proper infrastructure and financial support to meet safety standards. But, as Egypt's Mada Masr reports, this is not a new problem, and it is one that has been ongoing for years, during which Christians were not given permission to set up churches.
GIZA — The St. Demiana Church is only distinguishable from surrounding buildings in the neighborhood of Imbaba, in northern Giza, by the crosses on its windows and the security kiosk and metal gate encircling its perimeter. Before prayers commence, the church is already packed to the brim, as hundreds of families fill the premises leaving almost no standing room.
As people pack in, the parish priest, Father Ghaios Bekhit, conducts a safety check around the premises. He checks on the state of the electric cables attached to the air conditioning units and ensures the functionality of the fire extinguishers.
His vigilance has been triggered by fear of a fire scenario repeating itself in his own parish, in the aftermath of the tragic fire that broke out just 4 kilometers away in the Martyr Philopateer St. Mercurius [Abu Sefein in Arabic] Church in Imbaba, during a morning mass, said to have been caused by an electric short-circuit in an air conditioning unit in the building. According to the Public Prosecution., 42 people were killed in the August 14 blaze, including 15 children.
The state of St. Demiana is not that different from that of Abu Sefein. Both were originally residential buildings, later informally converted to churches, Father Hedra Makram, the parish priest at St. Demiana, tells Mada Masr.
Established by Father Bakhoum Matta in 1995, the church started out in an apartment before the community later purchased the entire building. The church was established without a permit.
“In those days, it was almost impossible to build a church, or even conduct renovations or repairs to existing churches,” Makram says.
Most churches in Imbaba are unsafe
At the time, only the country’s president had the power to authorize permits to establish churches. However, per a 1934 decree, before any application could be presented to the president, 10 vague conditions had to be satisfied. These conditions are related to the number of Christians in the area, the distance between the proposed church and existing churches, plus a host of other sectarian stipulations, including the distance between the proposed church and a mosque or Islamic shrine and any objections from Muslims in the area.
“For example, when we were trying to build this church, some of the Muslim residents complained to the police citing noise disturbance on account of the hymns,” says Makram.
The real problem is the negligence of district officials
A study published by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights concluded that these stipulations are tantamount to a ban on building churches, forcing Christians to set up churches in residential buildings to practice their religious rites.
“St. Demiana serves a parish of almost 1,000 families. Every man comes to the church accompanied by his wife and children,” says Bekhit.
“About 1,200 people attend the mass, despite the building capacity standing at an 800-person maximum,” adds Makram. “The building is not designed to facilitate the smooth entry and exit of churchgoers, nor is it fully equipped to meet safety and security standards. The capacity of churches to accommodate for the eventual increase in parish size was not considered at the time. They were established at a time when it was almost impossible to build churches.”
While deposed President Hosni Mubarak made changes to regulations governing church repair, the stipulations for construction only changed in 2016, when the government ratified new legislation. The legislation made provision for the formation of a committee to facilitate the licensing of existing churches.
On the ground, however, not much has changed. Abu Sefein and many other churches in Imbaba still receive large numbers of churchgoers daily, while lacking the infrastructure to safely accommodate them. The horrifying fire in Abu Sefein is a symptom of what years of a de facto ban on church construction has produced: churches established in cramped ill equipped spaces, unable to cope with the increasing number of attendees in an unplanned and unregulated area.
Building new churches
With more than 644,000 people living in an eight-kilometer radius, as per the 2018 census, Imbaba is one of the oldest and most densely populated neighborhoods in Giza, the Egyptian city on the west bank of the Nile, near Cairo.
An accurate official census of Imbaba’s Christian residents does not exist, as is the case for official census records documenting the number of Christians in Egypt. The church estimates the number of Christians in Egypt to be 15 million as per 2018 comments by Pope Tawadros II, while government estimates have been significantly lower.
According to St. Takla Haymanot, a website that documents the heritage of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, there are only 11 churches in Imbaba, only five of which have managed to regularize their legal status after the 2016 legislation was passed.
Far away from Imbaba, in far less densely populated areas, the state has built 57 churches in total in newly established cities over the past few years.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi went on record in March to say: “With every mosque built, a church will be built too. We don’t want any citizens converting apartments to churches.”
The church estimates the number of Christians in Egypt to be 15 million
No safety measures for older churches
But in the older, more densely populated neighborhoods of Cairo, the situation has not changed.
Through January 2022, the state has reconciled the status of 2,162 previously-built churches, out of more than 5,500 churches that submitted licensing applications.
Prime Minister Mostafa Madbuly requested newly licensed churches to commit to implementing the measures set by the Civil Protection Authority. But this runs contrary to the unified building code which stipulates the implementation of these measures prior to a building receiving a license.
According to Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher specializing in freedom of belief and religious minorities at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the committee tasked with reconciling churches’ legal status did not specify any penalties for churches that failed to implement these measures. It only set a timeframe of four months for newly licensed churches to comply with the measures set by the Civil Protection Authority and an additional four-month grace period if they failed to make the necessary changes within the initially granted period.
This is why, according to Ishaq, many churches, like Abu Sefein, had their legal status recognized despite failing to resolve the overcrowding problem and to implement safety and security measures.
No safety code for densely populated areas
On the corner of one Imbaba’s narrow alleyways, the tower of the St. Mark Church, with its attached crucifix, is barely visible amid the lines of laundry hanging from the neighboring balconies.
Inside the church, an air of peace permeates after the morning prayers, but the series of church fires are very much on everyone’s minds, particularly after a fire broke out in the St. Bishoy Church in Minya the day right after the Abu Sefein fire.
Father Morcos Ramzy, the 70-year-old leader of the parish, stands at the pulpit after prayers instructing attendees on safety and security measures in case of a fire and warns them of the dangers of an ensuing stampede if people jostle to escape, imploring them to exercise restraint at all times.
But the situation inside St. Mark is markedly different from that of Abu Sefein. The interior is more spacious. There are more seats. And the sitting area comfortably accommodates all parishioners. The church has a tower, a dome and a large crucifix adorning it.
Outside, it is the same story. Like all the other churches in the area, it is enclosed on all sides by unplanned buildings, many of which have piles of scrap wood and other junk piled up on their rooftops. The streets leading to the church are so narrow they are barely navigable on foot.
Back then there were no extremists attacking anyone trying to build a church.
The priest says the church currently meets building safety codes. There is a water reservoir on the roof, fire hoses and an emergency staircase. According to him, the real danger is the church’s surroundings. The route from the nearest fire brigade unit on Matar Street, one of Imbaba’s main roads, is almost completely blocked. It would be impossible for a large fire truck to make it through the narrow streets leading to the church in case of a fire.
Imbaba lies in the district of North Giza, one of the areas deemed by the state as “an unplanned zone,” defined by the Informal Settlements Development Fund as an area not established in accordance with proper urban planning tools. The St. Mark Church is nestled in a small alleyway between Gamea Street and Assyouty Street, both of which house large chaotic markets. Street vendors occupy half of the street and block the remaining half, leaving barely enough room for a small car or some pedestrians to pass.
“The streets have always been narrow. That has never been an issue. The real problem is the negligence of district officials and their leniency with street vendors allowing them to occupy the street,” says Ramzy.
Imbaba, the political fighting ground
On a building facing the church, someone has put up a black poster inscribed with a Quranic verse: “Indeed only religion with Allah is Islam. Those to whom scripture was given only disagreed among themselves after knowledge had been given to them out of envy between them.”
Imbaba is notorious as a battleground between the state and the various factions of political Islam, a contest that reached its apex in the 1990s. For many years, the neighborhood was associated with extremism, poverty, violence and chaos. Political Islamist groups have a long history in modern Imbaba, starting with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, Tabligh wal Dawa and Jama’a al-Islamiya, the latter being the most violent group, as described in Diane Singerman's book Cairo Contested: Governance, Urban Space, and Global Modernity.
The influence of these groups on the urban fabric of the area is reflected in the trend of naming streets and mosques after Islamic concepts such as iman (faith), dawah (the act of inviting others to embrace Islam), and etiman (reliance upon God). These were not previously common names for mosques in Imbaba or elsewhere across Egypt.
Between the early hours of December 8 and December 9, 1992, Imbaba was besieged by 16,000 security personnel in what researcher Eric Dennis describes as one of the largest security operations in the history of Cairo.
This incident was a landmark moment in the history of state dealings with irregular urbanization. The government’s actions aimed at tightening the security over areas considered shelters of their principal political opponents in the 1990s, the followers of violent political Islam. This has continued to inform national policies and plans regarding informal areas for the past two decades.
The situation in Imbaba remained tense well into the 2011 revolution, when radical Salafist groups set fire to a number of Coptic homes in Imbaba that served as churches, amid rumors that a Coptic girl had converted to Islam and was being held captive by the church. Thirteen people died in the attacks.
In front of the Church of Abu Qir in Old Cairo
Licensing process lacking transparency
In the easternmost section of Imbaba, in the Kit Kat neighborhood that sits by the Nile, the St. George Church sits with its white domes and large crucifixes, only separated from the river by one row of old houses and auto shops.
The church is not just a place of worship. It includes a pre-school, medical clinics and a tutoring center for students. “The church caters to all the needs of neighborhood residents, not just the Christians. It serves both Christian and Muslim residents,” says a priest who preferred to remain anonymous.
The St. George Church was established in 1947, the priest tells Mada Masr, recounting its history.
“This church is different from the ones that were originally apartments or residential buildings. It was designed to be a church from day one. It’s equipped with emergency exits. There are 400 square meters for seating, compared to the 60 square meters of Abu Sefein Church,” the priest says. “Back in the 40s it was easy to build a church. There was no terrorism or extremists attacking anyone trying to build a church.”
But the church’s legal status with authorities still has not been reconciled to this day, on account of the 1934 stipulations.
“Prior to the 1952 revolution many churches were built without a license,” Coptic intellectual and activist Kamel Zaker explains. “Father Sergious, the preacher of the 1919 revolution, built a church downtown without a license, and it remained without a license for many years. At the time there were plenty of unoccupied spaces in Cairo, and it was easy to build a church. The Islamists did not pay much attention to Christians or to their churches. It simply was not an issue for them.”
But the situation grew more complex after the 1940s, particularly with the 1970s rise of extremist groups and religious violence and the pressure this posed on both the state and Copts. “You simply couldn’t build a church whether you had a license or not,” says the priest. Faced with an increasingly hostile environment, Copts had to resort to building secret churches in private homes and apartments, in an attempt to sidestep Islamists’ refusal to allow church construction and their repeated attacks on churches.
Some of the demands being made do not take into account the nature of buildings in Imbaba, in addition to the absence of available resources.
“When the St. George Church was established, it had the capacity to accommodate all of the area’s Christian residents, but, with the population growing steadily since, this is no longer the case,” the priest says. “We’re talking 75 years. Now we are supposed to serve about 1,200 Christian families living in the areas, only 10% of which attend Sunday Mass, as the church can only seat 300 people.” Other priests standing nearby join in the conversation to concur with him.
Although the church reconciliation committee has agreed to license many of the churches set up in apartments and houses, the St. George Church has not received a response to the 2018 application. According to the religious affairs researcher Ishaq Ibrahim, the committee is yet to announce the criteria for approving churches’ licensing applications and has described the entire process as “lacking transparency.”
No resources for better infrastructure
Whether St. George manages to get a license or remains in limbo, however, does not address the real issue. The church is still unable to meet the demands specified by the Civil Protection Authority and suffers the same issues as churches built in small apartments and houses.
The St. George priest says this comes down to the difficult demands made by the authority and sees that some of the demands being made do not take into account the nature of buildings in Imbaba, in addition to the absence of available resources.
“A committee from the Civil Protection Authority visited the church four times in the span of the three years since the licensing request was submitted. They asked us to implement some measures, some of which we were able to do and others we couldn’t due to the nature of the area and the aging of the building.”
The priest says the surveying committee requested, among other things, the construction of a fire hydrant outside the building, which the church cannot afford as it relies on donations from the neighborhood residents.
Father Mikhail Antoun, the vice president of the church committee, agrees with the priest of St. George. “Every church has its own specifications, and some demands are hard to meet due to the circumstances and the nature of an area like Imbaba,” he says. “The committee is currently trying to negotiate with the Civil Protection Authority to facilitate some of the procedures.”
If you type in “Imbaba churches” on Google Maps, several red crosses will appear along with the names of the churches: St. Demiana, St. George, St. Mark, St. Michael, St. Mina, The Virgin Mary. On the map, the churches lay only a few kilometers apart.
Yet, they are separated by hundreds of houses, narrow streets and unplanned alleyways and all face a similar crisis on account of years of construction bans, complex stipulations, limited resources in the face of an increasing population, and surrounded by self-built buildings that could go up in flames at any moment.
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